Developing
9:06 am
Fri January 10, 2014

5 Things We Don't Know About Drinking Water Emergency in West Virginia

Area affected by water contamination in red circle
Area affected by water contamination in red circle

UPDATE: Monday, January 13, 2014 5:30 a.m.

As of this morning. more than 300,000 people who are customers of West Virginia American Water are being told NOT to ingest, cook, bathe, wash or boil water.

Why? A chemical spill Thursday of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol from Freedom Industries in Charleston.

On Friday, we asked five questions about the spill. Since then, we have some answers, and even more questions.

1. How harmful is this chemical to drink or breathe?

We still don't have a definitive answer on this, although West Virginia Public Broadcasting's Glynis Board has this great story about Crude MCHM. The Centers for Disease Control gave state officials a standard of 1 part per million as safe, but it's still unclear where that came from. As Board reports, it could be because Crude MCHM is not considered acutely toxic, so it is regulated under secondary drinking water standards of .5 milligrams per liter.

2. How much of this chemical entered the Elk River? When did the spill start?

Timeline:

7 a.m. - 8 a.m.: People in area start complaining about the smell. 

10:30 a.m.: Freedom Industries President Gary Southern said his employees discover the leak. Apparently, no one from the company notifies state or local officials, or calls the spill hotline, as required.

11:05 a.m.: After receiving odor complaints from residents, DEP officials show up at the site. Freedom Industries had not called to report the leak to them.

12:05 p.m.: Freedom Industries report spill to hotline.

As for when the leak started: it's not known yet exactly when. But since Crude MCHM has such a low odor threshold, state environmental officials think residents started smelling it very soon after it started leaking into the Elk River.

3a. Why can't we determine how much of this chemical is in the drinking water supply?

At the time of the spill, state and water officials had no good way to quickly test for Crude MCHM. Since then, the West Virginia National Guard and state health and environmental officials have worked at breakneck speed to develop a reliable test and brought the testing time down to under 20 minutes per sample.

3b. Why are we allowing chemicals to be stored so near a major water source, especially when we apparently have no way to test for it in the drinking water?

West Virginia American Water officials say they were not aware this chemical was being stored 1.5 miles upstream. Freedom Industry had filed a required Tier Two Emergency and Hazardous Chemical Inventory form, but according to the Wall Street Journal, a local emergency planner and a spokeswoman for the water company both say they never saw it.

4. Is exposure to this chemical in the air or water making anyone sick? From DHHR Secretary Karen Bowling at press conference Sunday: 10 people admitted to hospital, 169 people were treated and released. No deaths have been blamed on the spill as of Sunday evening. WV Poison Control received more than 1,000 calls.

5. Why was the "Do Not Use" order issued at least 10 hours (and perhaps more) after the spill started? The Do Not Use order wasn't issued until the 5 o'clock hour. Earlier that afternoon, West Virginia American Water officials said the treatment plant could handle the contaminant. Why did they change their minds? Did pressure from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and other state officials influence the company's decision to issue the Do Not Use order? Or did new facts on the ground, like growing knowledge of the extent of the contamination, lead them to issue the order?

BONUS Big-Daddy-of-Them-All Question: When will it be safe to use the water again? Flushing is beginning, with priority going to regions that have large hospitals, but it could take days for everyone in the region to be told they can use their water again.

ORIGINAL POST: Friday, January 10, 9:06 a.m.

Our news team is trying to get you the answers you're asking for about this spill. Here are some of the questions we still have -- what are yours?

1. How harmful is this chemical to drink or breathe? There's lots of scary information on the web about direct exposure to 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol. But what about exposure at the levels being experienced in the air and water?

2. How much of this chemical entered the Elk River? When did the spill start? People started complaining about the smell early Thursday morning, in the 7 o'clock hour. The source of the leak, Freedom Industries, did not immediately report the spill to authorities.

3. Why can't we determine how much of this chemical is in the drinking water supply? West Virginia American is supposedly testing the drinking water, but they say the tests are "inconclusive." Why are we allowing chemicals to be stored so near a major water source, especially when we apparently have no way to test for it in the drinking water?

4. Is exposure to this chemical in the air or water making anyone sick? Some people have turned up in hospitals complaining of symptoms, but it's hard to know if they are related.

5. Why was the "Do Not Use" order issued at least 10 hours (and perhaps more) after the spill started? The company did not report it, and even when state officials investigated in the midday Thursday, the Do Not Use order wasn't issued until the 5 o'clock hour. And why did West Virginia American Water officials at first say they could treat the water, then change their minds?

BONUS Big-Daddy-of-Them-All Question: When will it be safe to use the water again? Officials say they just don't know.